Campaign posters in Colombia (AP)

Campaign posters in Colombia. (AP)

Explainer: Who's Who in Colombia's 2022 Presidential Race

By Holly K. Sonneland , Jon Orbach and Hope Wilkinson

Will the country change political course? Ahead of the May 29 first round, we look at the top presidential candidates. 

Colombians are set to pick a new president following a turbulent period. Beyond the pandemic and its economic fallout, the country faces challenges like handling an influx of Venezuelan migrants, recent social unrest, and organized crime. President Iván Duque, limited to one, four-year term, is bogged down by low approval, and the race to replace him is in full swing. The 2022 vote takes place on May 29 with a potential June runoff.

Polling has leftist Senator Gustavo Petro and center-right former Mayor Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez as the top two contenders, though independent, anti-establishment candidate Rodolfo Hernández is gaining ground.

In March, three coalitions held consultations that essentially served as primaries between candidates from similar areas of the political spectrum: one for candidates on the center right (Team Colombia), a second for those on the center left (Hope Center), and a third for those on the left (Historic Pact). Petro won the Historic Pact consultation with 80.5 percent of the vote and 4.5 million ballots.  Gutiérrez nabbed the Team Colombia one with 54.2 percent of the vote and 2.2 million ballots. And Sergio Fajardo took the Hope Center coalition nomination with 33.5 percent of the vote and just 723,000 ballots overall. Fajardo is now polling fourth.

If no candidate gets more than 50 percent in the first round, a runoff takes place June 19. Major polls suggest that Petro would beat any opponent he would face in a runoff scenario and become the country’s first leftist president.

AS/COA Online profiles the top-polling candidates in the competition.

This piece was originally published October 4, 2021, and is updated as the race evolves.

Sergio Fajardo

Hope Center, Citizen Agreement

Mathematician and politician Fajardo, 65, won the Hope Center coalition’s nomination, albeit with just 723,000 votes, a far cry from the more than 4 million he received in the 2018 first round when he missed the runoff by 2 points.

Fajardo gained national recognition as first the mayor of Medellín from 2004 to 2008 and then governor of Antioquia from 2012 to 2016. When he ran in the 2018 presidential campaign, Fajardo focused on issues such as improving education and environmental reform. His 2022 campaign emphasizes improving education standards, particularly as a way to accelerate economic recovery. He encourages lowering the cost of university tuition to increase enrollment and accessibility. His platform also stresses the need to improve employment rates among youth and women. To achieve this, he proposes an emergency employment program using national funding to create jobs in fields including social services, construction, and more.

He faces embezzlement charges before the Supreme Court for allowing some contracts to be signed in U.S. dollars to the benefit of third parties while he was governor.

Federico "Fico" Gutiérrez

Team Colombia, We Believe Colombia

Gutiérrez, 47, won Team Colombia’s nomination with 2.2 million ballots—faring better than the tight race some pre-election polls had forecast.

A civil engineer by training, Gutiérrez first served on the Medellín city council from 2004 to 2011 before narrowly edging out Democratic Center’s candidate to win the city’s mayoral race in an upset in 2015. He’s running under the banner of his We Believe Colombia movement

His focuses are on an anti-poverty and anti-crime measures, both of which he says are necessary to give Colombia the stability needed for economic growth. He also advocates for education reform and more skills training and leans toward fewer market regulations and more state decentralization.

Rodolfo Hernández

Independent / Anticorruption League

An engineer and one-term mayor of Bucaramanga near the Venezuelan border, Hernández, 77, is running as an independent under the banner of the Anticorruption League. Hernández plans to self-finance his campaign and to avoid forming political alliances. To that end, he did not compete in a March consultation but will run as an independent in the general elections. Going it alone hasn’t hurt him as he has consistently placed among the top candidates in polls.

The focal point of Hernández’s platform is anti-corruption. His campaign slogan "Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t betray" harkens to the Incan saying “Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t be lazy" but with an anticorruption message swapped in. In August, local outlet Vanguardia released audio, undated but recorded during the current campaign, in which Hernández requests kickbacks from candidates who wish to run on the league’s 2022 ticket for representatives in the House. Besides asking up to a quarter of a million U.S. dollars for the top spot on the ticket’s congressional slate, Hernández also allegedly told would-be candidates he’d take a 10-percent cut of their salary should they be elected. Legal experts say the requests might have been inappropriate but not necessarily illegal as Hernández was not an elected official at the time he made them.

Gustavo Petro

Historic Pact, Humane Colombia

Easily the candidate with the highest name recognition, Petro, 62, is the one to beat. He won his consultation with not only 80-plus percent of the vote, but he also received almost 4.5 million ballots, about double what he earned in the 2018 consultations.

Although he lost the 2018 runoff to Duque by 12 points, Petro received 8 million votes nationwide, a new high-water mark for Colombian politicians from the left. Humane Colombia won an important ruling when, on September 16, the Constitutional Court—citing those 8 million votes as evidence of sufficient popular support—overturned a national electoral body decision to deny it political party status. Petro also has one of the highest disapproval ratings among the candidates. Four years ago, his support in polls largely plateaued after the March consultation.

Petro has stayed squarely in the spotlight since 2018, thanks to his automatic seat in the Senate as runner-up. A former M-19 guerrilla, he is a consistent mouthpiece for progressive politics in Colombia. On the flip side, his at times combative tone makes many uncomfortable. His style has arguably been more effective in the legislature than in executive roles. He was a representative in Colombia’s lower house from 1998–2006, then moved up to the Senate for a term until 2010. After that, he was mayor of Bogotá from 2012 to 2016, with the exception of one month in 2014 when he was temporarily removed from office for improperly privatizing some garbage services. It wasn’t the only rocky chapter to his tenure as the capital mayor, which saw high staff turnover.

While a representative, Petro presented information in 2005 that linked Uribe and his 2002 presidential campaign to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia paramilitary group. During the last four years, Petro’s anti-corruption message has been bolstered by Uribe’s burgeoning legal troubles as the country’s special peace tribunals investigate the “false positives” scandal of state-sponsored assassinations that took place during his presidency.

Out of all the candidates, Petro arguably made the most influential vice-presidential choice when he picked: Francia Márquez. The Afro-Colombian lawyer and environmental activist grew up in poverty in the country and now stands a good chance of becoming Colombia’s first black vice president. During interparty consultations, she ran in the same Petro’s coalition and earned more votes than did Fajardo.

Candidate graveyard

Below are candidates who either competed in a March 13 interparty consultation but did not advance, or candidates who dropped out ahead of the first round.

Íngrid Betancourt

In 2002, then-Senator Betancourt was campaigning for president when she was kidnapped by FARC guerrillas and held hostage for six years. After her rescue, she spent a decade in France, where she also has citizenship, before returning to Colombia to ease back into the political scene. During the 2018 campaign, she was an advocate for the implementation of the peace agreement with the FARC, while also criticizing the armed group’s leadership. She endorsed Petro in that year’s runoff. This time around, when she dropped out a little over a week before the election, she opted to back Hernández.

Betancourt, 60, was a late entry to the 2022 race, announcing only in mid-January. Her platform focused primarily on anti-corruption, reparations for victims of armed conflict, and environmental protections—similar to her platform from 20 years ago.

David Barguil

The Conservative Party’s Barguil, 40, placed third in the Team Colombia consultation, receiving 15.8 percent and 629,000 votes.

Educated in international relations and public management, Barguil won election to the House of Representatives representing Córdoba at the age of 28 in 2010. He held this position for eight years, after which he was elected to the Senate. He also served as a Conservative Party national official for six years.

Throughout his political career, Barguil has focused on banking abuses. As a senator, he created five laws benefitting bank users, including a law on early payments of credit and a law on transparent prices. In 2019, he authored the Clean Slate Law, an economic measure that expands access to credit for millions of Colombian citizens, which went into effect in August 2021.

On September 22, the Supreme Court opened a preliminary investigation into the alleged fabrication of medical disabilities that resulted in Barguil’s several absences from Congress during his time as a representative. With 73 absences over the four-year period, Barguil had the poorest attendance record among congresspeople that session.

Alejandro Char

Char, 56, came in a distant second in the Team Colombia consultation, with 17.7 percent of the vote and 707,000 ballots.

He rose to prominence as the two-time mayor of Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city and a major Caribbean seaport. Álex, as he’s called, trained in civil engineering and implemented major improvements to the city’s infrastructure, with a special focus on improving roads—including frequent and sometimes fatal flooding from tropical rains, the public hospital system, and city finances.

He got his start in politics on the Barranquilla city council in 1997, was briefly governor of the Atlántico department in 2003, and served as mayor of Barranquilla from 2008 to 2011 and then again from 2016 to 2019. In his first mayoral election, a coalition of parties ranging from the Liberal to the Conservative parties supported him. In his second, he was backed by Radical Change, a mostly centrist party founded by his father and whose allegiances have vacillated over the years. In a country where mayors are often considered more powerful than governors, Char was the most popular local official in the country at different points during both his terms and left office in 2019 with an astronomical 95 percent approval rating.

His family is a political dynasty in the Colombian Atlantic, with ownerships and major investments in the construction and grocery sectors, as well as the local soccer team. His father, Fuad, served multiple terms as a senator from 1991 to 2014, and his brother Arturo is on his third term, serving as the Senate president from 2020 to 2021. Though corruption allegations have at times swirled around members of his family such as his brother, no serious ones have been substantiated against Álex.

Juan Manuel Galán

Galán, 49, was the runner-up in the Hope Center's consultation, receiving 22.6 percent of the vote and 487,000 total ballots.

He is one of the most prominent children of political figures assassinated during the violence of the 1980s and 1990s in Colombia. His father, Luis Carlos, was the presidential front-runner when the Medellín cartel killed him in 1989 during a campaign rally. At the time, Juan Manuel was 17. After moving abroad and studying in Paris and Washington, he returned to Bogotá to get into politics. Following disagreements within the New Liberalism party with some of his father’s associates over how they were using his father’s image, he endorsed the Conservative candidate Andrés Pastrana in 1998 and later served in his administration.

He became a senator for the Liberal Party in 2006, where he remained through 2018. For the 2022 race, he and his brother Carlos Fernando, a Bogotá city councilman, revived New Liberalism, which the Constitutional Court granted party status in August.

A focal part of his campaign, as well as his political career in general, was ending the war on drugs by including more state presence in rural areas both militarily and economically in order to “completely displace criminal organizations” and stopping aerial fumigation of coca crops. In 2016, he introduced the legislation that legalized medical marijuana in Colombia, and he supports further regulation of other drugs as a way to cut the legs off of drug traffickers’ business. After 12 years in Congress, he also has several proposals for how to make legislating more transparent and less reliant on politicking.

Alejandro Gaviria

Gaviria, 55, is an academic, author, and policymaker who competed for elected office for the first time in the Hope Center consultation. He placed fourth in that race, garnering 15.6 percent of votes, for 336,000 in total. 

Gaviria’s platform covered improving security, labor rights, health equity, childcare, and rural development, among other issues. He also called the climate crisis the top medium-term challenge and sees the state’s redistributive role as “fundamental,” while also calling free enterprise and market economics “essential” for general well-being.

A civil engineer and economist by training, Gaviria was the dean of the University of the Andes’ Economics Department for six years before Juan Manuel Santos tapped him to be his health minister, a position he held from 2014 to 2018. After that, he returned to the university, where he headed its Center for Sustainable Development Goals for Latin America and was later elected its president.

Prior to academia, he was a subdirector in the National Planning Department during the Uribe administration, and earlier in his career he had stints as an economist and researcher for the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, Fedesarrollo, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, and a Medellín-based insurance company.

While he was health minister, he oversaw the regulation and implementation of Galán’s bill legalizing medical marijuana. A year later he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer known to be caused by aerial fumigation of coca crops, a practice he opposes. He used marijuana to manage his symptoms and side effects of chemotherapy. Gaviria also is one of five Latin Americans to serve on the Lancet’s 28-member Covid-19 Commission, and he sits on the editorial board of El Espectador. In a country where 80 percent of the population identifies with some branch of Christianity, Gaviria identifies variously as an atheist and humanist.

Óscar Iván Zuluaga

The runner-up in the 2014 presidential runoff, Zuluaga, 63, won Democratic Center’s closed party primary in November. Though he didn’t participate in any of the March coalition votes, he nonetheless dropped out after that vote to endorse Gutiérrez.

In 2002 he was elected to the Senate and then in 2006 became the finance minister under Álvaro Uribe until 2010. During the 2022 campaign, he pledged to end the so-called 4 x 1,000, a financial transactional tax introduced during the country’s 1998 financial crisis. To account for the lost revenues, he proposed austerity measures. As far as drug policy, he proposed replacing coca crops with marijuana ones for medicinal use as a way to combat illicit trade and increase legal employment opportunities and tax revenues. Other goals of his platform included increasing public security. He also was committed to recovering 2 million jobs lost due to the pandemic. In contrast to the Democratic Center’s platform position four years ago, he affirmed that had he been elected, he would have respected the peace agreement with the FARC.

Editor’s note: A previous edition of this article implied there would be only one consultation for centrist candidates in 2022. There were two.